1.5GW in Belgian capacity waiting for grid upgrade

Financial close delayed until network expansion is fully approved

Financial close for four Belgian offshore wind power projects with a combined capacity of 1.5GW is being held up by insufficient grid capacity. Transmission system operator (TSO) Elia is working on a new 380kV line and a ‘meshed grid’ in the North Sea to connect the new wind plant by mid-2016.

The four affected projects are Norther (350-450MW), Rentel (288MW), Seastar (246MW) and Mermaid (449-490MW).

Current grid capacity is sufficient for Belgium’s three offshore wind farms that are already operational or under construction: C-Power, Belwind and Thornton Bank. The latter will be completed later this year, when Belgian's offshore capacity will reach 871MW.

To accommodate the four remaining projects, Elia has created the Stevin project, involving expansion of the high-voltage grid from Zeebrugge to Zomergem and the construction of two new substations. Land-use approval has been obtained and an environmental impact assessment for Stevin should be approved by the summer, according to project director Ilse Tant. Elia can then apply for building permits, which usually take six-to-nine months. Construction could begin in early 2014, with completion two years later.

"Public acceptance of new onshore overhead lines is the main challenge," Tant said. "Getting permits in itself is not a problem because the regional authorities are generally supportive, but there is always a risk that opponents mount a legal challenge and projects get so delayed that investors take their money elsewhere."

The owners of Belgian’s outstanding four offshore wind projects will not be able to reach financial close until all permits have been secured and the Stevin project is free of legal challenges

In parallel to Stevin, Elia also has plans for a meshed grid linking Belgium’s offshore wind farms with two new offshore high-voltage offshore substations connecting to the onshore grid via the Stevin substation. This will mean fewer export cables and therefore fewer landing points and related infrastructure, thereby cutting costs and reducing environmental impact, explained Tant.

Elia must secure a regulatory framework that accounts for the additional risk of owning an offshore grid before its plans can be realised. Elia is preparing an investment plan and applying for permits. It hopes to make a final investment decision in early 2014. If it all goes to plan, the first offshore substation and connection should be operational by mid-2016.

Looking further ahead, the meshed grid could also hook up to an international network connecting offshore wind generation throughout the North Sea.

Elia has not yet decided how to fund its grid expansion plans. Last summer, it announced it would invest €1bn over the next decade in the offshore grid, sourcing two thirds of this externally. It is considering a share offer or creation of an offshore-grid subsidiary, in which external investors would take a stake.

At present, the TSO pays up to €25m of the cost of an offshore grid connection for projects of 216MW or greater, and less for projects with lower capacities. Project owners fund the rest.

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